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Virtue Signaling, Religious Style (Zechariah 7)

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Zechariah 7

Rev. Erik Veerman

5/15/2022

Virtue Signaling, Religious Style

Our sermon scripture this morning is Zechariah 7. This chapter begins a new section in the book. What we find is that a group of people have come to Jerusalem with a question. Through Zechariah, the Lord answers their question with his own questions back to them, and then gives them some guidance and a reminder about why the exile happened in the first place.

Reading of Zechariah 7

Prayer

Introduction

In the broader Christian world, we love to call each other Pharisees or fundamentalists. Pharisees were the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, whom he called out for their hollow religion. The word fundamentalist is used in different ways, but often it’s derogatory… someone who appears to only care about religious rules.

So for example, if we see a group of churches or people who seemingly care about certain commands in the Bible more than having a heart for the sinner, then we label them a Pharisee or fundamentalist. I think we all would agree, modern pharisees exist. There are people and churches who go through the religious and ritual motions, but whose hearts are far from the Lord.

But the thing is, no one, no church, thinks of themselves as a Pharisee. But what if we are modern-day Pharisees? What if you are or I am or our church is, but we’re just blind to it?

We would want to know that, right? Absolutely.

Well, this chapter in Zechariah, chapter 7, is about hollow religion. In it we see an example of what it means to do religious things, but for self-seeking purposes. And through Zechariah, God responds. He clearly identifies this kind of empty fundamentalism, and he points to what true religion is like.

Our temptation would be to use this chapter to help identify modern pharisees out there – because we love to do that. But instead, let’s use this chapter to search our own hearts. To ask ourselves, “is my religion a self-serving empty religion?”

We’ll begin with some background, and then as we get into the details, we’ll see multiple religious tests in the chapter. Like litmus tests. Tests that you can apply to yourself. And then we’ll end with where to begin. If you realize your religion is pharisaical, how do you change? Or if you realize you have pharisaical tendencies, how can you be renewed towards true religion?

Background

I mentioned this is a new section in Zechariah. This is the second of three main sections in the book. The third section will begin in chapter 9 and go through the end.

The visions have come to an end, and in chapter 7 verse 1, Zechariah gives us a new date. Instead of it being the second year of king Darius, the Persian king, it’s now the fourth year. He gives us the specific date which translates to December 7, 518 BC. It’s been about 2 years since the night visions – and exactly 70 years since Babylon conquered Jerusalem and exiled the people.

And, as you can imagine, the word had been getting out about what happened in the first 6 chapters – (1) Zechariah’s visions, (2) the re-start of the temple rebuild, (3) God’s promise that the priesthood would resume, and (4) the sign we considered last week - a future priest king that would come.

And as you can also imagine, there were a lot of questions. Like, what does this mean for the nation? And, what religious practices should they continue? In fact, multiple ceremonial fasts had started 70 years earlier. A fast was a pre-arranged time where the people deprived themselves of food as a religious observance. A fast was supposed to focus themselves on God and in prayer to him. In this case, multiple fasts had started around the time of the exile. Verse 3 mentions the fast in the fifth month. That fast was to remind them of the city and temple’s destruction 70 years earlier. Verse 5, in God’s response, the seventh month fast is also mentioned. That fast was to remember the murder of the Jewish governor back when the exile happened. In fact, in the next chapter, we learn there were 4 total fasts. That’s a lot of religious observances.

And so the people wondered, “with the temple being rebuilt, do we need to keep observing these fasts?” That’s a reasonable question. In fact, a delegate from Bethel arrived with that very question. Bethel was just a few miles north of Jerusalem. And so this group came. They found the priests and the prophets, which included the prophet Zechariah and presumably the high priest Joshua. And they asked their question.

Maybe a similar question today would be, “Should we continue to observe all of the Old Testament sabbath regulations every Sunday?” Or, “How many times a day should we be going to the Lord in prayer?”

And actually, both of these chapters, 7 and 8, answer the question. Chapter 7 is the bad news or maybe better said, a critique of their religious practices. In this chapter, God reminds them how their parent’s generation broke God’s covenant – a warning to them. But chapter 8 is the good new or the future hope if they turn their hearts to the Lord – a restored city and people because of God’s covenant faithfulness.

The other thing to note up front is the beginning of verse 5. “Say to all the people of the land and the priests.” The delegation from Bethel asked the question, but God’s answer was for everyone.

It applies to us today. Let’s go back to question for us: How do we know if our religion is true religion or just empty ritual religion? That’s a critical question for each of us.

There are four tests to help us evaluate.

The test of eyes, hands, ears, and hearts.

• Eyes - in other words, where are we fixing our gaze?

• Hands - are we engaged in mercy around us?

• Ears - are we listening and being attentive to God’s word?

• And hearts, do we truly know and believe the Lord. I’ll define that word heart when we get there.

1. Eyes

So first, eyes. Are we focused on the Lord or on ourselves?

That’s really where God’s response begins. His answer to them in verses 5 and 6 is kind of shocking!

Really, it’s a wake-up call. God answered with a piercing question back to them. “You’ve been fasting for these 70 years, but was it for me that you fasted?” God was implying, no it wasn’t for me! Rather as verse 6 goes on, just like you eat and drink for yourselves, so you were fasting for you, not me. In other words, God was saying to them, your religious practices have been self-focused. Hollow. Empty. You’ve wasted your time fasting because you fasted for yourselves.

Their eyes were not fixed upon the Lord. Rather, their eyes were fixed upon themselves. They had been doing religious things but not honoring the Lord… instead honoring themselves.

This is a hard thing for us today. So much of our culture is self-focused. All around us is a focus on the individual. Social media drives toward the self. We want to wear the right things and look the right way. We want people to think we are a good person and do good things. Or be the cool kid on the block. Our culture is a culture of self-idolatry which breeds jealousy and covetousness.

Recently I was listening to a talk and the speaker described a situation that happened in his family. They were starting a hike and had come across a cliff with a beautiful lake below. It looked like you could jump from the top of the cliff safely into the water below. It looked enticing. And their son asked if he could jump into the lake. Being good parents, they explained that it was too dangerous. It could be shallow or there could be hidden rocks. So, they continued on their hike, but on their way back they passed by the cliff again. A couple construction workers happen to be there after a long day. They stripped down to their shorts and jumped off the cliff into the lake. Turns out, it was safe. And so, of course, the son begged his parents to let him jump. So, they conferred and told him this, “you may do it, but no videos or pictures.” To which the son responded, “well then, what’s the point!” You see, the whole reason he wanted to do was show off to his friends.

As the dad was sharing this story, he commented how surreal it was – how they were witnessing a live illustration of what they had been trying to show their kids.

And we have to recognize that our self-absorbed culture has spilled into our religious practice. We want to be seen as pious. We want to demonstrate to people that we know our Bible. Dare I say, going to church and taking the Lord’s Supper can become just a ritual without the relationship with the Lord. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be going to church or partaking of the sacraments – God commands those. But faithfulness is giving God the glory in them not glory to ourselves for doing them.

You see, it’s not the practice of fasting that the Lord was critiquing. It’s that they were not looking to him in that practice.

So the first test for true religion is your eyes. Are you focused heavenward – towards the Lord of all creation – giving him glory, or alternately are you focused on yourself?

2. Hands

That brings us to the second test. Your hands. The question is, are you showing mercy and helping others around you who are in need?

Notice the second way that God responds to the delegates. He directs them to live out their faith by serving. Verses 9 and 10. “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”

We get the sense that, at least in part, the people weren’t doing these things. They weren’t caring for the poor. They weren’t showing mercy. On the contrary, it appears they were even oppressing those in need. But God deeply cares about truth worked out in justice. He hates oppression. He desires that we stand up for what is right and hate what is wrong.

As the apostle James put it (and this is our memory verse for the month), “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

It’s been often said, good works are never the root of faith. Rather good works are the fruit of a true faith. They are necessary in that way – not as a component that leads to faith, but as a result and testimony of true faith. If you look in your bulletin at our assurance of pardon today, it’s from Titus 3. It says, “he saved us not because of works done by us in righteousness but according to his own mercy.” We’re not saved by our works or our righteousness. But jump to the last sentence of Titus 3 verse 8. “I want you to insist in these things [meaning faith in Christ] so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.” So that word “works” is in these verses twice. Its saying works do not make us right in God’s eyes in order to be saved in Christ but good works need to come after. Good works are a test of true faith.

It’s the test of hands. Is your religion just empty rituals or are you displaying your true faith in your care of others. Are you pursuing justice for others and showing mercy and caring for the poor and fatherless or other needs around you?

And I should say, this is related to the first test. Someone who is self-focused often doesn’t want to serve others. Or if they do, it’s only for their own image.

3. Ears

So first, the test of eyes – are you looking to the Lord or yourself? Second, the test of hands – true religion is seeking to care for and love others. God desires that truth be applied and mercy shown.

And the third test is the test of ears. Are you willing to be attentive to and hear God’s Word?

Go back up to verse 2. This delegate from Bethel came to seek the Lord’s will. Verse 2 says, “to entreat the favor of the Lord.” That’s a worthy desire. It’s commendable. They wanted to hear from the Lord. But they were expecting a “yes” or “no” answer. And that’s not what they got.

Imagine being one of them. You expected to hear either a “yes, you should continue fasting” or “no, you don’t need to fast anymore” but instead, the Lord admonished them. How would you respond? Would your ears turn red as you got angry inside. “I wasted all those years fasting for no reason.” Or would you feel that weight of the Lord God himself, creator of the universe, speaking to you? And would that cause you to hear and be attentive to him, and desire to change?

You see, the people risked being just like their parents’ and grandparents’ generation, who didn’t hear God’s word. Verse 7 makes that clear, “were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, back when Jerusalem was prosperous…?” God was warning them about the same fate.

Look at the last 4 verses -11-14. It’s not speaking here about Zechariah’s generation. Rather, it’s going back in time to just before the exile. We’re given some clues about this. First, verse 12 mentions the former prophets again – going back in time. Second, verse 14 references the exiles… that they were scattered. And third, when the Lord is speaking, he’s using the past tense..

So, these last verses are not telling us how Zechariah’s generation responded. No, it’s a warning. God was reminding them that their ancestors broke his covenant and were therefore punished.

God wanted the returned exiles from Bethel and the surrounding area to hear him. The previous generation “stopped their ears, so that they might not hear.” That’s at the end of verse 11. Or look at verse 13. “As I called, they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear.”

Of course, this does not refer to physical hearing. It’s a call to be attentive to God’s word in your own life. Listening to God’s Spirit as he works through his Word. Sensing the conviction and desiring to evaluate your own life.

Children, this can be really hard, especially when your parents are trying to speak God’s Word into your life. Sometimes your initial reaction is to cover your ears instead of listening to your parents. I know from experience. But if they are instructing you in God’s word, God calls you to listen to them. My little nice refers to her dad’s instruction as “the pappa podcast” and sometimes she’ll say to him “can you turn off the pappa podcast?”

This is hard for all of us. When someone is giving you constructive feedback about your words or actions, it’s easy to dismiss them. But let me challenge you, even when that feedback comes from someone you’re not sure you entirely trust, receive the feedback graciously. And instead of dismissing it, share that feedback with some dear friends or family and ask them to help evaluate it. And with seriousness ask your friends if there’s any true part that would help you grow in your faith and practice.

The test of our ears. Being attentive to and not dismissive of God’s Word in our lives.

4. Heart

And the last test of whether your religious practice is true religious practice or whether you are just going through the motions… is your heart. It’s right there in verse 12. “They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent...” Again, this is referring to the generation that God exiled 70 years earlier. Their hearts were diamond hard. A diamond is the hardest mineral there is. And that description speaks volumes to how vehemently they ignored the Lord.

We come across the word heart in the Bible quite often. As a reminder, the word heart in Scripture has a different meaning than it does in our culture. The word heart does not refer to our feelings or emotions. Rather, it refers to the very core of what we believe and hold dear. It’s our conscience and will.

So, when it says their hearts were diamond hard, it means that the very core of their being was opposed to God. They didn’t truly believe in him. They thought they were good. They had the temple, after all. They were God’s chosen nation, after all. So, they thought they had immunity.

But then it all came crashing down. God’s presence left the temple. A foreign nation obliterated the temple and destroyed the city. Half of the people were killed by the sword and the other half dragged off to a foreign land.

They didn’t have a heart for God. This heart test is the center of each of these tests. Because of their hard hearts, their ears didn’t listen to his word; their hands didn’t care for the oppressed or poor; they didn’t deal justly. And their eyes didn’t look to God giving him the glory.

The heart is where the empty religion test begins. A modern-day Pharisee has a diamond hard heart that first doesn’t recognize his or her hard heart. And because of that, doesn’t see a need for salvation, and therefore doesn’t recognize Jesus as the son of God and only Savior. The Pharisees themselves rejected Jesus. They were about their power and control. Their hearts were hard. They didn’t hear or recognize God because their ears were closed. Their hands were folded – they didn’t care for the weak nor the sinner. Oh, they were religious, but their religion was about themselves. They prayed but their prayers were empty. They fasted, but only to show the world how religious they were. Their eyes were not humbly looking to the God who made them. Rather they only cared for themselves.

Conclusion

Where is your heart? Is this whole conversation making you uneasy? …this self-reflection on your own heart, and ears, and hands, and eyes? If your religion is a self-centered go-through-the-ritual-motions kind of religion, then I want you to feel uneasy. More than that, I want you to feel a need for a new heart and life lived out for God’s glory.

God offers you a new heart. He will take your diamond-hard heart and give you a heart of flesh. A heart that knows and loves God, glorifies him, and seeks his will. And that new heart comes through Jesus – submitting your life to him by faith. He is the answer to hollow religion. One commentator put it this way: “Jesus put himself on a collision course with ritual religion.”

And if you come to him, your empty religion will become faith in the true and living God. Your fasting, and prayers, and participation in worship will be accepted by God not because of your righteousness but because of Christ’s righteousness. And it will all be for God’s glory, because you will have a new heart in him.

Or maybe you do have faith in Christ, but you are asking yourself whether you are displaying your heart of faith in your ears and hands and eyes? Maybe you are praying to God now, “Lord, is my religion shallow?” Well, if you do trust in Jesus for salvation, hear the call of Zechariah 7 as a call to (1) a renewed sensitivity to hearing the Lord, (2) a renewed commitment to serving the mercy needs of others, and (3) a renewed desire to glorify God in your life, not to please yourself or others.

For all of us, out of hearts full of God’s grace, may our eyes constantly look to the Lord, may our hands minister justice and mercy according to God’s goodness and truth, and may our ears be attentive to his Word for his glory.

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